Earlier this year when one Ohio State blogger who pops his head up around here from time to time invoked what must be the second most-dread name in coaching* to an Ohio State fan considering the leadership of his favored program, I basically scoffed at the comparison:
I'm not saying Jim Tressel is Lloyd Carr, but... what separates Lloyd Carr in say, 2002 or 2003, from Jim Tressel right now? This is a line of thought I've been seriously following for the better part of a year now. I'd like some input from Michigan fans on this.
Here's my input: that's way hasty.
Though Jim Tressel shares many of Lloyd Carr's philosophies, he's been much better at making sure his unwavering belief that he has a kick-ass defense, great special teams, and pounding ground game is accurate. This made his philosophies actually work on the field. It makes way more sense to play Lloyd/Tresselball when your quarterback is Craig Krenzel and your middle linebacker is AJ Hawk than when your quarterback is Tom Brady and your middle linebacker is Zack Kaufman.
And Tressel has consistently displayed an aptitude for pulling out the stops when it comes to The Game. The single play that leaps out to me from Tressel's oeuvre that demonstrates his mastery of Michigan came midway through 2006's Football Armageddon. Ohio State rushed to the line after a nine-yard gain, aligned in a power formation, snapped the ball almost as soon as it was set, and ran play action that sucked Ryan Mundy up and led to an easy touchdown. That touchdown represented the four points separating a win from a loss and spoke of meticulous, wily preparation. (And, of course, the fact that Michigan safety play was consistently awful for ten years.) Jim Tressel is only a dinosaur when it suits him, which is usually but not always.
"Usually" is fine when you're going up against teams you've out-recruited for a decade. It's not when you're going up against USC or Florida or Texas, and in the aftermath of Ohio State's six straight failed attempt to prove themselves something other than a local bully, Ohio State fans got antsy, even angry. Then Chris Brown of Smart Football unloaded on Jim Tressel in a guest post at Doctor Saturday. You've probably seen it already. It instantly became an internet sensation everywhere from here to Ohio State message boards to, apparently (and possibly apocryphally), Tressel himself on Columbus radio. It's remarkable in a number of ways, but mostly for the strident tone Brown adopts. Brown has established himself as the blogosphere's most knowledgeable and perceptive observer of football, and he's done so without depressing a key in anger. The effect of the piece was similar to Bill Cosby calling someone you hate a stupid caveman:
[Tressel] is not good enough of a tactician to win against the national elite who, unlike practically everyone he schemes against in his conference, have the talent to match Ohio State's, and those are the only games where coaching really matters. With his facilities, talent, and resources, winning the Big Ten is not the test.
Look at the numbers. Ohio State's failure to beat a quality opponent since defeating Michigan to punch a ticket to the national championship game in 2006, Tressel's teams have been outclassed, outsmarted, outplayed and outprepared in every big game they've played.
If you haven't read it already, stop everything immediately and do so. The thing is pure porn for Wolverines, especially because the counter-example to stupid is the guy currently calling the plays for Tate Forcier.
You'll note that the other side of the ball was ahead of USC's curve. This seems like less of an accomplishment than it did a week ago, but this kind of statement from an offensive lineman…
“We spent all night trying to adjust to what they were doing up front. They did not come with the stuff we practiced against.”
…is the precise opposite of what Michigan fans will remember hearing and loathing whenever Michigan made a Rose Bowl against teams that would bash their heads in with a stick. That's high praise for the coaches and something that keeps Ohio State afloat even when they've got wonky quarterbacking—which, by my count, has been all but two years of Tressel's tenure.
This is about adaptation. In Michigan's win over Notre Dame, Tate Forcier threw 33 times, which was eight more attempts than Pat White ever had at West Virginia. Meanwhile, Tressel attempts to pound a square peg into a round, arm-punting hole. This goes beyond just the playcalling, though you'd never think it given the postgame reaction.
There was a minor hubbub about Tressel dropping something analogous to Rich Rodriguez's infamous "get a life" quote, albeit in exquisitely Senator Tressel fashion:
"When I read some of them I feel terrible for them because there's no way they're happy," he said. "They've got to be some of the most unhappy people in the world, and I feel bad because we just made them less happy, and I hate to be a part of making someone less happy. I mean, they're already miserable."
Exact same sentiment as "get a life," but respun in a way that defuses the hubbub. Yea, truly, Jim Tressel is a brilliant politician. But Holy God the only person to not totally ignore the big story from that press conference was Adam Rittenberg, who spent a bunch of his post on the matter detailing the ridiculous decisions Tressel made en route to defeat:
Tressel, who said he makes most of the play calls even though Jim Bollman has the title of offensive coordinator, disdained going for a touchdown in favor of an easy field goal on fourth-and-goal at the USC 1 early in the second quarter. He also favored punting on fourth-and-1 at the USC 45 in the third quarter.
With around 8 minutes left in the game and Ohio State gripping a 15-10 lead, the Buckeyes drove to a first down at the USC 35. After a run gained 3 yards, quarterback Terrelle Pryor threw an incompletion and then was sacked for a 4-yard loss that meant kicker Aaron Pettrey would have a 53-yard attempt on fourth-and-11 at the USC 36. Tressel elected to punt again.
That punt led to the Trojans taking control for an impressive 86-yard drive that won the game.
Ohio State is going toe-to-toe with a program they consider their equal. They're actually a significant underdog, with USC favored by seven. And Tressel kicked a field goal from the one yard line, punted on fourth and one on USC's side of the field, and punted from the USC 36. All of these things are insane by the numbers and more so when you've recruited a 6'6" beast of a quarterback who can fall forward for a first down behind the swamp-beast of a guard who you stole from Michigan. Tressel shriveled up and reduced variance in a game he is the underdog in because he finds it extremely hard to shift gears. By doing so he set his team up to lose a narrow lead late. His decisions can be directly blamed for the loss. Ohio State should never have been up only five points in that game. Engineering students of Ohio State, welcome to the same level of hell I was on after the 2005 Ohio State game. May you reside here long and painfully.
This is a failure to adapt. For twenty years Tressel has operated at a significant talent advantage relative to almost all of his peers. With the relative collapses of Michigan and Penn State—who has beaten OSU of late when the talent scales approach even—there has been no local program fit to challenge Ohio State recruiting star to recruiting star, and he's rolled up conference championships and victories only to be smacked down when the big guys from elsewhere roll into town. Tressel is fixed in his ways and has not been challenged sufficiently to re-evaluate his philosophy. At this point it's hard to imagine him doing so simply because of inertia. And the big games continue to roll by without victories. Tressel, at this point, is not a version of Carr waiting to happen. He's Bo Schembechler.
POSTSCRIPT: The exercise of comparing Rodriguez to Tressel, Carr, and Schembechler is largely left to the reader, but I'll refer you to an earlier piece that has been reinforced by the first three weeks of this season and the Smart Football article above. Money (ha) graf:
Rodriguez comes from a wholly different background than Carr, coming up through the ranks at NAIA schools and Tulane and Clemson and West Virginia. Until Pat White showed up he never had a significant talent advantage against the vast majority of opponents. He never, ever had the luxury of lying back and thinking to himself "if we out-execute the opponent we will win," and it shows. He invented a whole new offense and used it to exploit inefficiencies in recruiting. To seal the Sugar Bowl against Georgia he called a fake punt, exploiting inefficiencies in fourth-down playcalling. For the past seven years he has played Moneyball at West Virginia.